Very occasionally an integration session feels faintly out of alignment to me. It seems like the person I’m working with is doing it from a sense of duty, rather than a genuine desire to deepen into their own experience—as if they’re not quite sure what integration is, but they’ve heard it’s important, so they’re checking it off the post-ceremony to-do list. Sometimes we can explore together to tap into a genuine desire to grow, and then we’re integrating. Rarely the feeling persists that we’re doing a kind of psycho-spiritual fitness practice, which of course is not satisfying for anyone involved.
This leads me to some thoughts on what integration is—and isn’t.
What Integration Is Not
Let’s start with what integration isn’t, beyond it not being obligatory:
- It’s not (only) an emergency cry for help, à la “I had a terrifying ceremony, and I’m freaking out, help me integrate it!” This is crisis intervention, and I do plenty of it in my work. It’s vital, but I don’t think of it as integration per se—it’s more like survival. But sure, resolving the panic can be an essential step in your continuing integration work.
- It’s not limited to a sharing circle. Post-ceremony circles are great, don’t get me wrong. But I keep hearing people say “Sure, I did the integration circle” as if their three-minute share takes care of the whole thing, and it doesn’t. (More on this below.) The words that arise the morning after need time to ripen; that’s one aspect. Talking itself is not the only aspect of integration. Rarely is there space for anyone to fully unpack their experience in a group setting. And people who’ve had a difficult time can feel intimidated by what’s generally a morning-after love-‘n-light fest, and may withhold their true experience—or even worse, are publicly shamed for having it. Integration, in my view, is broader and deeper than simply recounting your experiences.
- Integration is not something you can only do with a specialist—although, as a specialist, I can say that very often a session or two will help enormously. An integration therapist//coach/facilitator can be particularly handy in provoking thoughts, clarifying confusion, stimulating growth, and helping brainstorm practical ways to apply what you’ve learned moving forward.
- It does not all/always happen automatically with time, although the passage of time plays a key role (discussed more below) and is a vital element in digesting certain stuck psychic hairballs.
- It’s not the same thing for everyone—and even for the same person can vary greatly from ceremony to ceremony. Just as your psyche is unique, your ceremony experiences are unique. It makes sense that your integration work is unique, also. To paraphrase something Rick Doblin said about LSD: “It’s not an ayahuasca experience; it’s an experience of your own psyche, mediated by ayahuasca.”
What Integration Is
I love the fact that there is no clinical definition for psychedelic integration, and therefore we get to create it. Elsewhere on this site, I’ve written that integration means “to apply the fruits of the journey to one’s life.”
“Integration is the process of growing into new ways of being, as we translate our insights into direct action. It can mean surrendering an old habit or starting a new behavior: shifting our perspective to allow for new ways of being; conversations to have, decisions to make . . . Simply put, integration is the process of growth and evolutionary change.”
Another way to look at integration is the process of assimilating unconscious material—bringing previously unknown parts of ourselves into the light, and weaving them into our being. Often these aspects (memories, qualities, reflexive defenses) have been buried in the unconscious due to past trauma.
I deliberately take a broad perspective here, in order to push back against the common inclination to try to pack integration into a small recipe box. Someone asked me before his first ceremony: “So, what do you recommend I do to integrate afterwards?” I was blindsided: you have to get through the ceremony, see what comes up, and tailor your interventions to that. I did suggest he journal about his experience the morning after, as that seems pretty consistently beneficial. But honestly, I couldn’t answer that question for him beforehand. Psyche is fresh and ever-flowing, and integration follows no set formula.
For Amanda, for example, her integration work was all about following up on her realization in ceremony that “I push away my dark side.” That meant turning to face her sadness, her anger, her fear, in real time, and consciously getting to know those emotions.
For Josh, it was taking in the newly revealed images of the suffering his mother grew up with, and allowing this newfound compassion to soften his normally irritated responses to her.
For Caitlin, immediately following a rough retreat, integration first off meant sleeping, eating grounding food, lying on the earth, and doing everything she could to come back into her body. Once this happened, further layers of work arose.
Eduardo’s first integration steps were to write out the difficult yet honest conversation he’d realized he needed to have with his wife, to commit to doing this within the next two weeks—and to do it.
For Gillian, integration included finding three embodied ways to recall the fully embodied joy she’d felt in her ceremony, and bringing these into her daily life in brief moments—just a few minutes a day of breathing into her heart, recalling the images, summoning the feelings, repeating the words that had arisen inside, and allowing her body to ground and expand into this upgraded version of herself.
These descriptions are greatly oversimplified, but you get the idea: integration is different for every single person, each time. There is no set recipe for the process. The practice of growing into wholeness, becoming more and more complete, is a lifelong alchemical process.
Integration isn’t some exotic product to be sourced from a session, acquired from an expert, or obtained through an act of will. Hopefully a certain amount of integration arises spontaneously from your nature as a reflective and thoughtful person—which is presumably what led you to plant medicine, and this website. (If you’ve gotten this far into this article, count yourself a reflective and thoughtful person!) It’s likely that you were walking the path of growth before you met ayahuasca, and that you are continuing to do so at an accelerated pace in the aftermath.
To some extent, integration happens naturally. If you’ve been in an ayahuasca retreat, hopefully you’ve been integrating during the course of it. Every thought, musing, surge of unexpected emotion, journal entry and dream can be part of your integration. Every dance, meditation, yoga asana, likewise. Every nap and night of sleep, also (see Why Sleep Is Essential In Integrating Ayahuasca)
Whether you’re walking down a jungle trail or around a suburban block, the time and space you give yourself to process are integrative in their very essence. You’d have to work pretty hard to block out all aspects of natural integration from your consciousness. (Maybe if you manage to eat pork, drink booze, smoke weed, and binge on porn as a regular post-ceremony practice, such a blockage could be cultivated?)
Integration As Exploitation: Colonizing the Psyche
Finally, integration is not a “thing” to obtain. To treat it as such is a not-so-subtle extension of how the modern Western mind has for centuries colonized and exploited indigenous cultures and environments, as currently visible in the extractive ideologies plundering the Amazon. Colonization exists on the inside as well, in the way that this exploitative attitude is turned to one’s own psyche as a resource to be manipulated and used.
I see us virtually all caught in this net, enmeshed from the moment of birth in societal conditioning that permeates the very air we breathe with its fixation on “progress,” its idealization of power and control, and the solidification of processes into objects. We see it in the overvaluation of our mental capacity at the expense of body, emotion and spirit, and the lack of balance we experience between these different parts of ourselves.
The truth is, integration is not a thing but a process, intimately linked to the way you grow through life. It’s a living, breathing, organic doing blended with a way of being, not a product to acquire, nor a task to check off your list. If you can approach it with warmth, openness and curiosity, you’ll feel the breath of life flowing through the entire process, and you’re likely to naturally know what you need to do next.
If you persist in treating integration like an object, a solid “thing” to get, rather than a process to flow with—well, you’re missing the point. You overlook the actual living essence of integration, which is growth, the force that through the green fuse drives the flower, and everything in Creation. It’s the difference between exploiting life vs. simply living it. Appreciating this difference is in itself one of the most important lessons plant medicine has to teach us.